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In this 2-3 page double spaced paper you should write, at least, four good paragraphs:
a. The first paragraph should summarize the main points of the readings. Make sure you provide a
comprehensive summary and the core argument(s) of the readings. b. In the second paragraph, you should critically engage with the central ideas, concepts, and
arguments of the authors. Some of the questions you might want to keep in mind when you write
this paragraph are the following: Do you agree or disagree with the main argument that the
author(s) rise? Why? From your point of view, what are the strengths and weakness of the authors’
main arguments? What is your own interpretation of the arguments in the readings? c. The third paragraph should explain the way in which the central ideas, concepts, and arguments
of the authors are related to your personal experiences and/or of those in your social
environment. d. The fourth paragraph should formulate a question based on the readings. Write a paragraph to
explain how the question is related to the reading(s) and why you think it is important to answer
it. Keep in mind that only posing a question is not enough. You should explain why that question
is relevant in the context of the readings and how the question relates to the readings.
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Severe Deprivation in America: An Introduction
Matthew Desmond
RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, Volume
1, Number 2, November 2015, pp. 1-11 (Article)
Published by Russell Sage Foundation
For additional information about this article
https://muse.jhu.edu/article/603804
No institutional affiliation (20 Dec 2018 23:53 GMT)
Severe Deprivation in
America: An Introduction
M at t hew Desmon d
A Li fe
Crystal Mayberry was born prematurely on a
spring day in 1990 shortly after her pregnant
mother was stabbed eleven times in the back
during a robbery.1 The attack induced labor.
Both mother and daughter survived. It was
not the first time Crystal’s mother had been
stabbed. For as far back as she can remember,
Cryst al’s father had beat her mother. He
smoked crack cocaine, and so did her mother;
so did her mother’s mother.
Crystal’s mother found a way to leave, and
her father soon after began a lengthy prison
sentence. Crystal and her mother moved in
with another man and his parents. That man’s
father began molesting Crystal. She told her
mother, and her mother called her a liar. Not
long after Crystal began kindergarten, Child
Protective Services stepped in. At five, Crystal
was placed in foster care.
Crystal was bounced around between dozens of group homes and sets of foster parents.
She lived with her aunt for five years. Then her
aunt returned her. After that, the longest Crystal lived anywhere was eight months. When
adolescence arrived, Crystal had to fight more
with the other girls in the group homes. She
picked up assault charges and a scar across
her right cheekbone. People and their houses,
pets, furniture, dishes—these came and went.
Food was more stable, and Crystal began taking refuge in it. She put on weight. Because of
her weight, she developed sleep apnea.
When Crystal was sixteen, she stopped going to high school. When she turned eighteen,
she aged out of foster care. By that time she had
passed through more than twenty-five foster
placements. She had been approved for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), mainly on account of bipolar disorder, and would receive
$754 a month, or a little over $9,000 a year.
Crystal was barred from low-income housing for two years because of the assault charge
she c aught for fighting in the group home.
Even if she had not been barred, she would
still have found herself at the bottom of a waiting list that was six years long, which wasn’t
too bad considering that the wait in large cities
like Washington, D.C., can extend to twenty
years. Crystal secured her first apartment in
the private market—a run-down ­t wo-bedroom
unit in the inner city whose rent took 73 ­percent
of her income. A few months later, Crystal experienced her first official eviction, which went
on her record, making it likely that her appli-
Matthew Desmond is associate professor of sociology and social studies at Harvard University.
I thank Sheldon Danziger, Kathy Edin, Suzanne Nichols, Devah Pager, Robert Sampson, Mario Small, Bruce
Western, the Russell Sage Foundation Trustees, and all who participated in the “Severe Deprivation in America”
conference, hosted and sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation on October 30–31, 2014. Direct correspondence to: Matthew Desmond at [email protected], Department of Sociology, Harvard University,
William James Hall, 33 Kirkland St., Cambridge, MA 02138.
1. I met Crystal while conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Milwaukee with low-income tenants and their landlords (Desmond 2012, 2016). Crystal Mayberry is a pseudonym.
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S e v e r e D e p r i va t i o n i n A m e r i c a
cation for housing assistance would be denied.
After her eviction, Crystal met a woman named
Vanetta at a homeless shelter and, with her,
secured another apartment. Then Crystal put
Vane tta’s friend through a window, and the
landlord told Crystal to leave.
Crystal spent nights in shelters, with friends,
and with members of her church. She learned
how to live on the streets, walking them at
night and sleeping on the bus or in hospital
waiting rooms during the day. She learned to
surv ive by relying on strangers. She met a
woman at a bus stop and ended up living with
her for a month. People were attracted to Crystal. She was gregarious and funny, with an endearing habit of slapping her hands together
and laughing at herself. She sang in public,
gospel mostly.
Crystal had always believed that her Supplemental Security Income was secure. You
couldn’t get fired from SSI, and your hours
couldn’t get cut. “SSI always come,” she said.
Until one day it didn’t. Crystal had been approved for SSI as a minor, but her adult reevaluation found her ineligible. Now Crystal’s only source of income was food stamps.
She tried donating plasma, but her veins
were too small. Disconnected, Crystal burned
thro ugh the remaining ties she had from
church and her foster families. When her SSI
was not reinstated after several months, she
desc ended into street homelessness and
prostitution. Crystal had never been a morning person but soon learned that was the best
time to turn tricks, catching men on their
way to work.
A C h alle n g e
Many of us who are poverty scholars have met
people like Crystal. We learn a great deal from
them , and our own lives are influenced by
them. And many of us feel, on returning to the
library from the field, that the tools provided by
main stream social science are outdated and
leave us ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of the lives of people like Crystal.
Should we say Crystal is “poor”? She certainly is that—but living in mere poverty would
be a tremendous blessing for Crystal. Poverty is
defined officially as an income cutoff, a threshold. But there are many depths below the pov-
erty line. Poverty is qualitatively different from
“deep poverty” (half below the poverty line),
which in turn is a world apart from “extreme
poverty” (living on $2 a day) (Aron, Jacobson,
and Turner 2013; Shaefer and Edin 2013). There
is poverty, and then there is poverty. Recent debates about poverty measurement have focused
largely on its material attributes: for example,
how to account for taxes, transfers, and benefits, or whether to adopt a relative or absolute
de finition (Brady 2003; Meyer and Sullivan
2012). These debates are necessary and productive, but a relatively small income is but one of
many obstacles ­preventing Crystal from living
a full, productive, and healthy life. Like many
people from disadvantaged families, she experienced setbacks at a very young age (even before birth) and never fully recovered from them.
Poverty is more than a material condition (Sen
1999).
Should we place Crystal in a larger “structural framework”? If so, which one? Many of
our structural theories, and their corresponding policy prescriptions, trace social problems
back to a singular source, some big word that
sits at the mouth of the river. Deindustrialization. Neoliberalism. Racism. Welfare reform.
What would that singular source be in Crystal’s
life? The joblessness of her father? Her mother’s addiction? The sexual abuse or violence?
The broken foster system or schools that allowed her to fall through the cracks? Poverty is
multidimensional, yet the one-dimensional focus of many of our structural accounts facilitates intellectual fragmentation and prevents
re searchers from building a comprehensive
and systematic theory of poverty that articulates how movements and countermovements
in different spheres of life (political, economic,
re sidential, familial) collude to deepen or
lessen American inequality.
Should we make sense of Crystal’s young life
by referencing “culture?” Can we do that and
fully appreciate how traumas imprinted themselves on her body and mind? At seventeen,
Crystal was examined by a clinical psychologist,
who diagnosed her with, among other things,
bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder,
reactive attachment disorder, and borderline
intellectual functioning. According to his repo rt, Crystal “has limited ability to tolerate
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S e v e r e D e p r i va t i o n i n A m e r i c a
much in the way of frustration or anxiety and a
pr oneness to act out her tensions without
much in the way of forethought or deliberation. . . . She is still seen as being fragilely integrated.” Did Crystal put that woman through a
window because of the “culture of violence”
pervading the inner city, or because she was a
young person who had herself been brutalized
and psychologically damaged—or both? The
time is ripe to explore the relationship between
cu lture, psychology, and inequality (Lamont
and Small 2008; Patterson 2015). What is clear
is that we cannot talk about agency without recognizing the deep imprint of past traumas, just
as we cannot talk about “violent offenders”
without recognizing that many of them were
“violently offended” themselves as children, as
Bruce Western’s article demonstrates.
Ho w should we begin to study the conditions that Crystal’s young life embodies so tragically and completely? Should we design a randomized control trial or a quasi-­experimental
method to isolate the single most meaningful
cause of Crystal’s hardship? That seems quite
impossible, as the lives of the poor are characterized by correlated and compounding disadvantages. Should we conduct a survey or analy ze big data in the form of administrative
records? Our most vulnerable citizens often are
le ft out of survey samples and infrequently
show up in administrative databases. Should we
conduct fieldwork? Ethnography comes with its
own set of analytical and ethical challenges, especially when studying the poor. These questions have led several contributors to this issue
to develop methodological innovations to capture the complexities of poverty, including the
ethnographic approach of Megan Comfort and
her coauthors, who fully integrate clinical social
work.
Besides these methodological challenges,
the very language of “poverty” can be fuzzy and
imprecise. This problem is accentuated by the
fa ct that our analytical concepts have never
been innocent of politics and moralizing (Gans
1995; O’Connor 2009). Our current terminology
gr oups all families below a certain income
threshold into a single category: the poor. But
3
doing so can flatten crucial differences in how
material scarcity and psychological turmoil are
experienced. How can our concepts be refined
or redefined? How can we capture with more
precision variations or degrees of hardship and
social suffering among low-income families?
And what do we mean by “poverty” anyway?
S e v e r e D e p r i vat i o n
These challenges motivated this journal issue
on severe deprivation in America. By “severe
deprivation,” we mean economic hardship that
is (1) acute, (2) compounded, and (3) persistent.
Let us unpack these three components.
Acute hardship: Life far below the poverty line,
characterized by a scarcity of critical resources
an d material hardship. No rich democracy
matches the United States in the depth and expanse of its poverty. As of 2015, almost 50 million Americans lived below the federal poverty
line. If America’s poor founded a country, that
country would have a bigger population than
Spain. In 2010, 20.5 million people in the United
St ates lived in deep poverty—that is, on incomes below half the federal poverty threshold—up by almost 8 million since 2000.2 That
same year one in every fifty Americans reported
living in a household with an income consisting only of food stamps (DeParle 2010; Edelman
2012). Crystal lived on $25 a day before expenses
and far less after she paid her rent.
Compounded hardship: “Poverty plus,” or correlated and compounded adversity. This idea
speaks to the clustering of different kinds of
di sadvantage across multiple dimensions
(p sychological, social, material) and insti­
tutions (work, family, prison). Although the
li terature on development economics has
grappled with the problem of measuring multi dimensional hardship (Alkire and Foster
2011; Sen 1976), students of poverty in America
have only begun thinking through the conceptual and methodological challenges of this approach. The essence of poverty is not simply
an economic condition but the linked ecology
of social maladies and ­broken institutions. To
this end, the articles in this issue develop new
ways of combining—rather than isolating—dif-
2. In 2010 the number of Americans in deep poverty fell to 15 million after accounting for all public benefits.
Most of those people were lifted into mere poverty (Edelman 2012, 82).
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S e v e r e D e p r i va t i o n i n A m e r i c a
ferent forms of ­disadvantage, including Claire
Herbert, Jeff Morenoff, and David Harding’s
analysis of the nexus between the prison and
housing markets and Kristin Perkins and Rober t Sampson’s method of measuring “compounded disadvantage” that unites individual
an d ecological hardship (see also Sampson
2014). If, in the end, it comes down to all of it,
then thinking that one institution or condition has supreme explanatory priority—that
“the most important thing” is the family, the
neighborhood, housing, employment, or education—may be the wrong direction for poverty research. This point applies to statistical
methods that promote isolationist thinking as
well as to qualitative approaches that tend to
fo cus on a single dimension of a disadvantaged group instead of “studying the whole”
(Desmond 2014; Halle 1984).
Persistent hardship: Enduring disadvantage often stubbornly impervious to change. This component of our definition focuses attention on
three interrelated matters. The first involves
the lasting effects of early-life trauma, including abuse, hunger, and violence experienced
as a child or even as a fetus (Shonkoff et al.
20 12). Many people below the poverty line
speak of the traumas that set them on certain
paths. Just ask Mrs. Lana of Eastwood, whose
madness after her son’s murder is captured by
Laurence Ralph. The second matter is deprivation experienced over long stretches, even lifetimes. Here, questions regarding the coping
strategies and effects of long-term social suffering come into play (Brooks-Gunn and Duncan 1997; Jencks 1992). The third element of
persistent deprivation deals with generational
poverty passed down from parents to children
(Sharkey 2013). When we focus on generational
deprivation, we not only recognize the resiliency of past wrongs on present-day problems
bu t we may also find explanations for why
some children born into poverty manage to
climb out of it.
A critic might accuse the social scientists in
this issue of “scraping the very bottom” and
object to building a research agenda, let alone
a public policy, this way. To this criticism we
have three responses. First, thinking about severe deprivation is not just a matter of studying the poorest of the poor. Our collective proj-
ect is to develop a set of analytical commitments
that go beyond narrow and tidy approaches to
economic vulnerability. It is more about a perspective, a certain intellectual posture, than
about a specific population.
That being said, it may be just as orienting
to speak of the “severely deprived” as a population as it was when scholars spoke of “the
underclass” (Myrdal 1963; Jencks 1992; Wilson
1987), before that term became saddled with so
much cultural baggage that researchers and
journalists eventually let it die. We know startlingly little about life at the bottom of society
(Gans 2014), even if many social problems we
care about—from crime and violence to homelessness and teenage pregnancy—largely involve not simply “the poor” but people whose
lives are characterized by economic hardship
that is acute, compounded, and persistent. In
fact, researchers who focus exclusively on, say,
educational inequality, housing instability, legal entanglements, or neighborhood disadvantage often are studying the very same families
whose lives are marred by severe deprivation.
Our second response speaks to the need to develop an approach that encourages researchers
and policymakers to understand those families holistically instead of specializing in one
vector of their lives.
Th ird, we note that not only does severe
de privation rest at the heart of many social
pr oblems, but that it may not be as rare as
scholars often think. When Americans compare
the poverty of their fellow citizens with the desperation that grips the slum dwellers of Lagos
or Caracas, or with the swollen-bellied families
in the villages of rural India or inland China,
they sometimes conclude that American poverty would be considered downright abundance
in other parts of the word, that ours is an unfortunate but ultimately lesser hardship. On some
key measures, this is undeniably true. But this
line of thinking can cause us to overlook just
how desperate the situation is for those Americans living at the very bottom. Sometimes such
comparisons lead to the presumption that nobody in the United States lives “that bad.” “Four
billion people in the world earn less than $2 per
day,” write a group of scholars in the pages of a
leading academic journal (Walsh, Kress, and
Beyerchen 2005, 473). “No one in the U.S., Japan,
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S e v e r e D e p r i va t i o n i n A m e r i c a
or Germany lives in such poverty.” No one? This
is tragically far from true, at least as far as the
United States is concerned. Luke Shaefer, Kathryn Edin, and Elizabeth Talbert find that the
number of American children who experienced
chronic extreme poverty, living on no more than
$2 a day for seven months or more, has increased by over 240 percent since 1996.
A N e w P ov e r t y Ag e n da
Poverty researchers from across the social sciences have the opportunity to reach collectively
toward a new paradigm—not just a new way of
thinking but a whole different approach to the
study of vulnerability, violence, and marginalit y, one that carries methodological, policy-­
relevant, and normative implications. Most research is rooted in theories now a few decades
old. These theories have stood the test of time
because they are incisive, sweeping, and validated. But they also were developed before the
United States began incarcerating more of its
citizens than any other nation; before urban
rents soared and poor families began dedicating the majority of their income to housing; before welfare reform caused caseloads to plummet; and before the crack epidemic tore apart
poor minority communities. In recent years,
th e very nature of poverty in America has
changed, especially at the very bottom. A new
poverty agenda is needed for a world that is itself quite new.
Am erica’s social policies have changed.
Some forms of public assistance, like housing
assistance and cash welfare, have been scaled
back, while others, like the Earned Income Tax
Credit (EITC) and the Supplemental Nutrition
Assistance Program (SNAP), have grown substantially. Large-scale changes in federal poverty policy have created new winners and losers.
Households just above and below the poverty
threshold receive significantly more help today
than they did twenty years ago—but those far
below the poverty line receive significantly less
(Currie 2008; Moffitt 2015). The inequality debate focuses mainly on the growing divide between the rich and the middle class. But there
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